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New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Curriculum/Scientific Literacy

Teach food science to improve health outcomes

Teaching children about food is as important today as it has ever been, as Dr Simon Loveday, Research Scientist, Riddet Institute, Massey University Palmerston North, explains:

“If everyone knows that you need to exercise and eat good food to stay healthy, shouldn’t we all be sleek, smart, Energizer bunnies?”

In September 2011, the Ministry of Health released the results of the 2008/9 NZ Adult Nutrition Survey, and they are sobering reading. For example, obesity among men increased from 17% in 1997 to 27.7% in the latest survey – a 63% jump in just 12 years! Obesity among women is about the same at 27.8%.

OK, so we have a problem…but you knew that already. You may have also been bombarded with such inane and useless facts as how much exercise it takes to burn off a Big Mac combo2 and how many gallons of soft drink Americans chug down every year. That’s part of the problem – information overload. Sifting the wheat from the chaff in an information-saturated society is not easy.

I don’t claim to know what or how to teach today’s children, but I would like to put forward a few arguments for why teaching them about food is at least as important today as it ever has been, and how food can be a great vehicle for teaching chemistry, physics, maths and general science.

When I tell people I’m a Food Scientist, the conversation tends to go something like this:

Q: Is that like a chef?

A: No, I work with the molecules in food to understand and improve food manufacture.

Q: So you do molecular gastronomy, like those TV chefs, with liquid nitrogen and stuff?

A: Yes, I use liquid nitrogen like the TV chefs, but have you ever seen Heston Blumenthal at the wheel of an atomic force microscope or a synchrotron beamline?

Q: What?

A: Never mind, suffice it to say, Food Scientists use fundamental science tools to probe natural and man-made food molecules and structures.

What is wrong with our diet, and why?

Returning to our national nutritional problem, in addition to high obesity rates, the Adult Nutrition Survey identified widespread deficiencies in vitamin A, calcium, iron, selenium and zinc (see Table 1).

So why are we getting more obese and not getting the right micronutrients? Part of it may be our penchant for political football, as Professor Jim Mann of the University of Otago explains: “we used to have a strategy – Healthy Eating-Healthy Action (HEHA) – but it wasn’t in place long enough to find out if it was working.” HEHA was started in 2003 then substantially cut back in 2009.

The Adult Nutrition Survey highlighted that in the last 12 years there has been a marked decline in food security (see Figure 1), defined as “access to adequate, safe, affordable and acceptable food.” Professor Elaine Rush of AUT comments that “the relatively large decrease from 1997 to 2008 in food security and the increase in body size for height is a huge concern for all New Zealanders.”

However, even in groups with high food security, some vitamin and mineral deficiencies persist. For example, 15 to 18 year olds in particular are not getting enough vitamin A and iron. So there’s something fundamentally wrong with our diet. Are we buying the wrong food? Are we storing and cooking it wrongly? Should we be taking vitamin pills? One of the Adult Nutrition Survey’s authors, Professor Winsome Parnell of the University of Otago, notes that “there is an attitude out there that nutritional deficiencies can be made up by supplements or pills. In reality, spending the money on healthy food would be better.”

As a country, we need to raise scientific literacy for a whole lot of reasons, and I know it’s preaching to the choir to write that here, but I’d like to suggest that NZ particularly needs a healthy dose of scientific literacy around food and nutrition. It should be about what food we buy and how we prepare it; about having the knowledge to see through misleading marketing such as: “baked not fried”; and to interpret the information on the nutrition panel on the back of the packet. It’s things like knowing that the skin of a potato is the most nutrient-rich part, and that microwaving your broccoli is healthier than boiling it.

Some of that knowledge, such as food preparation skills, used to come from the family, but as Sir Peter Gluckman comments, “the obesity epidemic cannot be handled unless all young people have the nutritional knowledge that most families just do not have.” Other aspects of food and nutrition literacy – such as interpreting nutrition panels and filtering marketing messages – are entirely new challenges that many parents themselves struggle to understand, let alone advise their children about.

Support for teaching the science of food 

There is evidence to suggest that the context within which science learning takes place has an important influence on student engagement and understanding. A recent report by Ako Aotearoa and Massey University found that “student engagement and transition [to tertiary science study] were most strongly influenced by lecturers’ style, personality, enthusiasm, and ability to place scientific knowledge into contexts that were relevant to the student, or which the students could construct for themselves.” In a 2011 report to the Prime Minister’s Office, Sir Peter Gluckman found that “engaging with science in real contexts provides opportunities for the development of students’ understanding of the culture and process of science and its unique place within society. This supports the direction of science education outlined in the New Zealand Curriculum.”

Food can be an excellent context for teaching basic scientific principles; its real world relevance lies in the fact that everyone eats food, most children select or buy their own food some of the time, and most will have to prepare their own food once they leave home. Food can be a vehicle for teaching the Nature of Science in areas such as experimental design and data analysis, or more specialised topics like pH titrations, oxidation-reduction reactions, enzymes, micro-organisms etc. Even physics topics such as heat transfer (e.g. cooking by convection/conduction/ radiation), electromagnetic waves (e.g. in microwave ovens) and mechanics (e.g. in measuring the hardness and elasticity of solid foods) are applicable to foods.

Food Science and Technology professionals have designed low-cost, scientifically rigorous experiments suitable for school science classes, and you can download them for free, including teachers’ notes and assessment questions7. During a Royal Society Teacher Fellowship hosted by Massey University’s Food Technology Department, Wellington High teacher Marietjie van Schalkwyk designed three practical experiment kits that include all materials and information packed into a handy bucket.

There are some great case studies and teaching materials on www.biotechlearn.org.nz centred around the properties of taewa Ma¯ori potatoes, and the technology used to deliver fish oil in functional foods.

There is a real willingness among the scientists and technologists I have talked to in universities, Crown Research Institutes and food manufacturers, such as Fonterra, to help teachers in whatever capacity they can. I have been a mentor for a silver CREST award project, judged science fair projects, run professional development activities for senior science teachers and sat down with primary and intermediate teachers to help design food-centred science units for their classes. The NZ Institute of Food Science and Technology (www.nzifst.org.nz) or the Institute of Professional Engineers (www.ipenz.org.nz) can help put you in touch with food professionals in your area.

Food Science vs. Food Technology

Food Scientists use fundamental science tools to understand and improve the molecular structure and nutritional properties of foods. Food Technologists work a bit closer to the coal face, taking the findings of Food Scientists and translating them into consumer products and food manufacturing processes.

Q: So that’s just like food technology at school then?

A: Yes and no, and therein lies a terminology problem. Food Technology at school explores the practical and cultural dimensions of food preparation, and though it touches on food product development, it’s not a hard-core science subject. By contrast, you need Level 3 physics, maths and chemistry to study Food Technology at university.

The divergent perceptions of “Food Technology” at school and university may explain why not many top science students study Food Technology at university. I was dux of my school and top in chemistry, and having made it to postdoctoral level in food research, I now have a very stimulating and rewarding job spanning fields that include organic chemistry, soft matter physics and gastrointestinal biology. Food and nutrition research is a truly trans-disciplinary field, and the Riddet Institute, a national Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE), brings together NZ’s top academic and industrial researchers in the field with collaborators from around the world.

Food research at the Riddet Institute is very multicultural, with roughly 80% of our Masters and PhD students coming from overseas. It is difficult to find domestic students interested in postgraduate food research, which is perhaps the unfortunate legacy of mismatched perceptions of what “Food Technology” means. Food industry recruiters report that approximately 50% of Food Technologists employed in NZ come from overseas. That is another reason to bring food into the science lab at school: because there are great science-based jobs in the NZ food industries, and not enough local graduates to fill them.

The take-home message

In summary, poor diets and bad health outcomes suggest that there’s a real need for food and nutrition literacy in NZ. One way to boost that is to incorporate food into science teaching, and this would have the added benefit of bringing everyday context to the learning process. Food Scientists and Technologists are ready to help, and have provided some free or low-cost ‘off the shelf’ plans for practical experiments and activities. Many in the food industry are willing to volunteer their time to help out teachers, so don’t be shy about getting in contact. For more advanced science students, there are great careers in Food Science and Technology that will draw on their chemistry, physics and maths skills and challenge their creative minds.

For further information contact: s.loveday@massey.ac.nz


  • 2008-2009 Adult Nutrition Survey, available from: www.moh.govt.nz
  • A 15km run according to The Sun newspaper or 1hr 20min of cycling for just the burger according to: www.medicinenet.com
  • 49 gallons or 185 litres per capita per year in 2001 according to: www.ers.usda.gov
  • Quoted on: www.sciencemediacentre.co.nz on 15 September 2011
  • “Looking Ahead: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century.” A report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. Available from: http://www. pmcsa.org.nz
  • “Engaging Learners Effectively in Science, Technology and Engineering.” Available from: http://akoaotearoa.ac.nz
  • See: http://www.nzifst.org.nz/careers/
  • See: http://mufti.massey.ac.nz/
  • Entry requirements for Massey University’s 4-year B.Tech. Food Technology (Hons). scientist

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